Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Coincidences of Robertson Davies

 A couple of days ago, I was reading in The Los Angeles Times a news story about the Angels of Anaheim – a story I can’t bring myself to talk about. But at the bottom of that sad story, I saw a link to another sad story: “God Found in DNA.” Curious, I clicked the link and was taken to an Op-Ed piece by an author who was glad to report that scientists had finally found the causes of religion in human DNA. Imagine John Lennon’s dream coming true, he suggested. At last humanity can be free from the crippling, dangerous idea of God and admit that there is no Hell below us, above us only sky. Human DNA offers our race a unique passion for explanation, the story said, a unique tendency to assume personal agency when causes are unknown, and a unique desire to congregate with others based on shared ideas rather than just shared physical needs. Now that we see that these traits come through our genes and survived natural evolutionary processes, we can see them for the illusions they are. It has now been proven, the author declared, that man created God.

I don’t see the discoveries as proof of any such thing. Christianity has made a lot of sense to me for a long time, and I’m not about to change my view based on a report in a newspaper by a man who wants to see some pop lyrics come true. For one thing, the details were far too sketchy to overturn the wisdom of billions of people who think and have thought that God is more than a racial illusion. For another, I can’t figure out if the author thinks these genetic traits are good or bad: at one point he says they lead to religiously motivated violence and human death, but in another, he says they provide humans with a survival advantage. To give a third reason, the laboratory of history shows us that violence and bloodshed don’t disappear when belief in God is abandoned: revolutionary France and Soviet Russia were hardly peaceful, tolerant cultures.

But more than not seeing this news as proof that God is a construct, I actually see it as evidence that the Bible is true. Many times throughout the Bible we read that God has made humans in a special way that makes them capable and desirous of connecting with the supernatural. David says in the Psalms that humans are fearfully and wonderfully made. Solomon says in Ecclesiastes that eternity is in our hearts. Isaiah reports that God invites us to reason with him, and the Psalms again teach that animals don’t have the necessary reason. So scientists have at long last found the physical markers of this special aspect of our created nature. One might think that these scientists have shown the value of scientific method as an advanced intellectual tool. But another person could say that the superior path to knowledge is the one that made the discovery three-thousand years ahead of the other.

In a curious coincidence, I found an almost identical train of thought later in the day when reading more of The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. In a conversation between scientist Ozy Froats and Renaissance scholar Maria Theotoky, Prof. Froats praises a scientist named Sheldon for developing a metric to codify different types of healthy human bodies. Maria responds that the writings of Paracelsus are full of such ideas. Oh, but you couldn’t call it scientific, retorts Froats. “You have to prove things like that experimentally.”

Maria: “Did Sheldon prove what Paracelsus said experimentally?”

Ozy: “He certainly did!”

Maria: “That just proves Paracelsus was the greater man; he didn’t have to fag away in a lab to get the right answer.”

Later that day, in an astonishing coincidence of coincidences, I was looking in the library catalog for a book I needed for class on the history of the university and found that my author had also written a book on, of all people, Paracelsus. I think I need to read it.

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